courtesy Domino Records

Playback 1/27/20

Arctic Monkeys — “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”

When I was 13, I had specific images of England in mind: girls with scribbled, smoky eyeliner, ashing what was left of their cigarettes, moody skies and faded brick landscapes, the intangible spirit of rock, whatever fostered the Clash, the Smiths and the Libertines to write stinging, embittered lyrics.

Looking back, I know I’ve made a lot of generalizations there. Maybe I based my opinion too much off of the television show “Skins.” Maybe I was caught between whether I wanted to be Effy or date her. Or, maybe, there’s something paradoxical about that English punk band scene that was both relatable and unrealistic — where the reality of cheap beer, faux-poetics and cloying tobacco tar coincided with the ability to produce lyrics that were almost universal in their disillusioned tone.

The Arctic Monkeys was the kindling of my stupid thirteen-year-old angst. Sure, there were a few whiny lyrics by The Smiths thrown in my subconscious at the time, but the Arctic Monkeys gripped me by the throat and told me to listen.

Now at nineteen, I’m still grappling at trying to understand what frontman and lyricist Alex Turner wanted me to hear about Sheffield life. And I think I’ve got a better idea.

The title of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” is the pinnacle of what the songs entail: a curled lip and snarky, biting lines. Turner highlighted the experience of adolescents, writing about pushy bouncers (“From Ritz to Rubble”), petty squabbles in relationships (“Mardy Bum”) and pretentious members of bands, hyping their minuscule fame and never really saying anything of importance (“Fake Tales of San Francisco”).

Turner was twenty when the album released and even younger when he wrote the songs. On the album’s fourteenth anniversary, he has only built upon his prowess as a wordsmith.

The opening line of the album from the song “The View from the Afternoon” is telling enough: “Anticipation has a habit of setting you up / For disappointment . . .” Foreshadowing their recent album, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”? Maybe. But it’s an important enough statement in itself – he wants the listener to rise above the hype that the Arctic Monkeys had established from their previous Myspace fame and make their own opinions on the content itself.

Then, with jolting, rambunctious drums and fevered guitar riffs, the band’s first breakout single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” plays. Turner finds the reality of a night out. There isn’t romance (“no Montagues or Capulets,” he sings in the bridge) but rather temporary lust and alcohol-inspired boldness. His lyrics are nothing groundbreaking and possess no head-scratching, soul-searching metaphors; rather, they’re realistic, no frills involved.

Perhaps that’s the magic of the Arctic Monkeys’ first album. Trying to break away from poetic drivel, the lyrics offer significance through simplicity.

Later, the night out is over, and the album finishes with two punches: the real sound of the Sheffield streets in “When the Sun Goes Down” and an existential crisis plus small-town claustrophobia in “A Certain Romance.” The former features Turner vividly painting an angry yet emotionally distant observation of prostitutes and their uncaring pimps (“He told Roxanne to put on her red light / They’re all infected, but he’ll be alright”). The latter is Turner sighing about, really, living with chavs. He offers an almost wistful feeling when he writes, “There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.” Boredom breeds violence, and as a young adult coming to his own, he is only too aware of the little difference he makes with his lyrics. It is what it is, he seems to say, and the lines are characteristically adolescent in the stoicism it intones.

I don’t know many albums that have gripped me the way “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” does, but I think that’s the mastery of young Turner. By breaking down idealistic illusions of small-town, English life, he narrates in a way that is somehow disarming and undeniably authentic. Sure, Turner’s lyrical voice hasn’t fully established itself in this album, but what it does is create the roots from which his following albums can branch off. And whatever it is about this album – the snarly lyrics, the momentum built from roaring instrumentals, a disinterested portrayal of the heart of Yorkshire – there’s something that has kept me listening.

I may not be the doe-eyed Anglophile dreamer that thirteen-year-old me was (thank God), but the Arctic Monkeys have stuck with me. Their sniveling punk tone is matched with a mad sprint through clubs and pubs and drunken streets, and I’m satisfied because I can finally keep up with the album’s running.

Post Author: Anna Johns